Glycolic Acid: What is, Benefits for skin, Side effects, & How to use

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Glycolic acid is a powerhouse ingredient in the world of skincare, renowned for its ability to transform the top layer of skin. As one of the most popular alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs), it is widely used for its exfoliating properties, helping to smooth skin texture, reduce the appearance of fine lines, and even out skin tone. In this article, we'll explore what glycolic acid is, its numerous benefits, potential side effects, and how to incorporate it effectively into your skincare routine. Whether you're new to glycolic acid or looking to deepen your understanding, this article will provide you with the insights you need for healthier, more radiant skin.

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What is Glycolic Acid

Glycolic acid is a type of alpha hydroxy acid (AHA) derived from sugar cane. It is the smallest AHA molecule, allowing it to penetrate the skin deeply and easily. This deep penetration makes glycolic acid highly effective at exfoliating the skin by breaking down the bonds between dead skin cells, enabling their removal more efficiently

"Glycolic acid is a gold-standard ingredient in dermatology. It works by dissolving the bonds that hold dead skin cells together, allowing them to be exfoliated more effectively."

Dr. Joshua Zeichner, MD, Dermatologist

Glycolic acid has been used since ancient times, with sources of AHAs found in natural ingredients like sour milk (lactic acid) and sugarcane (glycolic acid).

In addition, is one of the few chemical exfoliants that has received approval from the FDA for safe use in over-the-counter skin care products.

What Does Glycolic Acid Do for Your Skin?

Glycolic acid works primarily as an exfoliant. By removing the outermost layer of dead skin cells, it reveals fresher, brighter skin underneath. Here are some key functions and benefits:

  • Exfoliation: It helps to clear away dead skin cells, reducing dullness and giving the skin a more radiant appearance.
  • Cell turnover: Glycolic acid accelerates cell turnover, promoting the production of new skin cells and enhancing skin regeneration.
  • Collagen production: Studies have shown that glycolic acid can stimulate collagen production, which is essential for maintaining the skin's firmness and elasticity.
  • Hydration: It has humectant properties, meaning it attracts water molecules to the skin, helping to keep it hydrated.

By understanding the mechanisms behind glycolic acid's effects, you can better appreciate why it has become a staple in many skincare routines.

Benefits of Adding Glycolic Acid to Your Skin Care Routine

Incorporating glycolic acid into your skincare routine can offer numerous benefits, addressing various skin concerns effectively.

But what us glycolic acid used for? Here are some specific issues that glycolic acid can help with.

Glycolic acid is beneficial for acne-prone skin due to its exfoliating properties. By removing dead skin cells and clearing clogged pores, it helps prevent acne breakouts. Studies have shown that glycolic acid can reduce the number of acne lesions and improve overall skin appearance. Additionally, its antibacterial properties can help reduce the bacteria that contribute to acne formation.

Hyperpigmentation, including sunspots, can be effectively treated with glycolic acid. The acid helps to fade these spots by promoting the shedding of pigmented skin cells and encouraging the growth of new, evenly pigmented skin. Regular use can lead to a more uniform skin tone over time.

Glycolic acid's ability to stimulate collagen production is particularly beneficial for reducing the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles. As collagen is essential for maintaining skin elasticity and firmness, increased collagen production can lead to smoother and more youthful-looking skin.

Glycolic acid is also used in the treatment of warts. Its exfoliating action helps to remove the layers of skin affected by the wart virus. This can be an effective and non-invasive option for wart treatment, promoting the removal of infected skin cells and potentially preventing the spread of warts.

Woman who is being applyed her skincare routine with glycolic acid

Most Read: Traditional vs Personalized vs Adaptive Cosmetics Comparison

Side Effects of Glycolic Acid

While glycolic acid offers numerous benefits, it can also cause side effects, especially if not used correctly. Understanding these potential side effects can help you use glycolic acid safely and effectively.

Woman looking herself on mirrow checking the results of her custom skincare routine

One of the significant concerns with glycolic acid is its effect on the skin's sensitivity to UV light. Glycolic acid can make your skin more susceptible to sunburn and UV damage because it exfoliates the top layer of dead skin cells, which naturally provides some protection against the sun.

According to a study published in the Journal of Investigative Dermatology, glycolic acid-treated skin shows increased sensitivity to UVB radiation. Therefore, it's crucial to apply sunscreen daily when using glycolic acid products, even on cloudy days or when staying indoors.

Glycolic acid can cause skin irritation, especially for those with sensitive skin or when used in high concentrations. Common signs of irritation include redness, burning, itching, and peeling.

If you experience these symptoms, it might be helpful to reduce the frequency of use or try a product with a lower concentration of glycolic acid.

Gradually building up your skin's tolerance can also mitigate these effects.

In some cases, glycolic acid can lead to post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation (PIH), particularly in individuals with darker skin tones. This condition occurs when the skin overproduces melanin in response to inflammation, resulting in dark spots or patches.

To minimize this risk, it's essential to start with lower concentrations of glycolic acid and to ensure proper sun protection to prevent further pigmentation issues.

How To Use Glycolic Acid In Your Skincare Routine

Incorporating glycolic acid into your skincare routine can be highly beneficial, but it's essential to use it correctly to maximize its benefits and minimize potential side effects. Here’s how to effectively include glycolic acid in your regimen:

  1. Start Slowly: Begin with a low concentration (around 5-10%) to allow your skin to adjust. Use it once or twice a week initially, gradually increasing the frequency as your skin builds tolerance.

  2. Patch Test: Before applying glycolic acid to your entire face, perform a patch test on a small area of your skin. This helps ensure you do not have an adverse reaction.

  3. Cleanse Your Skin: Apply glycolic acid to clean, dry skin. Using it on damp skin can increase irritation.

  4. Apply Evenly: Use a cotton pad or your fingertips to apply the product evenly across your face, avoiding sensitive areas like the eyes and lips.

  5. Follow With Moisturizer: Glycolic acid can be drying, so it’s important to follow up with a good moisturizer to keep your skin hydrated.

  6. Use Sunscreen: Since glycolic acid increases your skin’s sensitivity to the sun, always apply a broad-spectrum sunscreen with at least SPF 30 during the day.

  7. Observe Your Skin: Monitor your skin’s response and adjust usage accordingly. If you experience significant irritation, reduce the frequency or switch to a lower concentration.

  8. Combine with Other Products Carefully: Be cautious when using glycolic acid with other active ingredients like retinoids or vitamin C, as this can increase irritation. It’s often best to use them at different times of the day or on alternate days.

By following these steps, you can safely and effectively integrate glycolic acid into your skincare routine, reaping its many benefits while minimizing potential drawbacks.

How Long Does It Take for Glycolic Acid to Work?

The time it takes for glycolic acid to show visible results can vary depending on the individual's skin type, the concentration of the product, and the specific skin issues being addressed.

However, here are some general timelines you might expect:

  • Initial Results: Some users may notice an improvement in skin texture and radiance within a few days to a week of consistent use. This is due to the exfoliating properties of glycolic acid, which help remove dead skin cells and reveal fresher skin underneath.

  • Acne Reduction: For those using glycolic acid to manage acne, it may take about 2 to 4 weeks to see a reduction in breakouts and improvement in skin clarity. The acid helps keep pores clear and reduces the formation of new acne lesions.

  • Hyperpigmentation and Sunspots: Fading dark spots and hyperpigmentation typically require more time. Expect to see noticeable changes in 4 to 6 weeks with regular use. Glycolic acid promotes cell turnover and helps even out skin tone over time.

  • Fine Lines and Wrinkles: Addressing fine lines and wrinkles can take longer. You might start seeing smoother skin and reduced wrinkle depth after about 8 to 12 weeks of consistent use. Glycolic acid’s role in boosting collagen production is gradual and cumulative.

  • Wart Treatment: If using glycolic acid for warts, it can take several weeks to months to see significant improvement. The acid works by gradually breaking down the affected skin layers.

It's important to be patient and consistent with your glycolic acid regimen. Results can vary, and maintaining a regular skincare routine, including sunscreen use, is essential for achieving and sustaining desired outcomes.

Is Glycolic Acid Good for All Skin Types?

Glycolic acid can be beneficial for a variety of skin types, but its suitability largely depends on individual skin characteristics and how it is used.

Here’s a breakdown of how glycolic acid interacts with different skin types

Those with normal skin can generally use glycolic acid without significant issues. It can help maintain a healthy glow and smooth texture by promoting regular exfoliation and cell turnover.

Glycolic acid is particularly effective for oily and acne-prone skin. Its exfoliating properties help to keep pores clear, reducing the likelihood of breakouts. Additionally, it can help manage excess oil production and improve skin texture.

While glycolic acid can benefit dry skin by removing dead skin cells and promoting hydration, it's important to use it in moderation.

Overuse can lead to increased dryness and irritation. Combining glycolic acid with a good moisturizer can mitigate these effects.

For combination skin, glycolic acid can help balance the differing needs of oily and dry areas. Applying it strategically to oily zones can reduce breakouts, while careful use in drier areas can help with exfoliation.

Those with sensitive skin should approach glycolic acid with caution. Start with a low concentration and perform a patch test to ensure there is no adverse reaction.

Using glycolic acid less frequently and combining it with soothing and hydrating products can help minimize irritation.

Mature skin can benefit from glycolic acid's ability to stimulate collagen production and improve skin elasticity.

Its exfoliating properties also help reduce the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles, promoting a more youthful complexion.

It's crucial to tailor the use of glycolic acid to your specific skin type and needs. Consulting with a dermatologist can provide personalized guidance to ensure optimal results and minimize the risk of adverse reactions.

In addition, each sensitive skin reacts differently. This fact means that some users cannot take advantage of some skincare ingredients. The Isolated Formula that Lesielle makes available to its users allows you to use only those ingredients that your skin needs, having your custom skincare products.

Different skin types that can use glycolic acid

When To Use Glycolic Acid

Incorporating glycolic acid into your skincare routine at the right time can maximize its benefits and minimize potential side effects. Here are some guidelines on when to use glycolic acid for optimal results:

  • Evening Routine: Glycolic acid is best used in the evening because it can increase your skin’s sensitivity to the sun. Applying it at night allows it to work without exposure to UV rays, reducing the risk of sunburn and UV damage.

  • Post-Cleansing: Apply glycolic acid after cleansing your face and before applying other skincare products. This allows it to penetrate deeply and exfoliate effectively without interference from other products.

  • Frequency: Start by using glycolic acid once or twice a week, gradually increasing the frequency as your skin builds tolerance. Most people find that using it 2-3 times per week is effective, but this can vary based on your skin type and sensitivity.

  • Seasonal Considerations: During the summer months, when UV exposure is higher, you might want to reduce the frequency of glycolic acid use or ensure rigorous sun protection. In the winter, when your skin might be drier, adjust your usage based on how your skin responds.

  • Special Occasions: If you have an upcoming event and want your skin to look its best, start incorporating glycolic acid into your routine a few weeks in advance. This will give your skin time to adjust and reveal a more radiant complexion.

By strategically timing your use of glycolic acid, you can enhance its effectiveness and protect your skin from potential adverse effects.

How to Choose a Glycolic Acid Product

Selecting the right glycolic acid product can make a significant difference in achieving your skincare goals. Here are some key factors to consider when choosing a glycolic acid product:

  1. Concentration: Glycolic acid products come in various concentrations, typically ranging from 5% to 20%. Beginners should start with a lower concentration (5-10%) to minimize irritation and allow the skin to build tolerance. Higher concentrations (10-20%) can be used by those with more resilient skin or for specific concerns like severe hyperpigmentation or deep exfoliation.

  2. Formulation Type: Glycolic acid is available in multiple formulations, including toners, creams, and peels. Your choice should depend on your skin type and personal preference:

    • Toners: Suitable for oily and combination skin types, toners provide light and quick application.
    • Creams: Ideal for dry and mature skin, creams provide added moisture along with exfoliation.
    • Peels: These are high-concentration treatments meant for occasional use and should be used with caution.
  3. pH Level: The effectiveness of glycolic acid is influenced by the product's pH level. For optimal exfoliation, look for products with a pH between 3 and 4. This pH range ensures that the glycolic acid remains active and effective.

  4. Additional Ingredients: Look for products that include soothing and hydrating ingredients such as hyaluronic acid, aloe vera, or glycerin. These ingredients can help mitigate potential irritation and dryness caused by glycolic acid. Avoid products with alcohol and other harsh additives that can exacerbate irritation.

  5. Patch Test: Regardless of the product you choose, always perform a patch test before the full application. This helps to ensure that you do not have an adverse reaction to the product.

By considering these factors, you can select a glycolic acid product that best suits your skin type and needs, helping you achieve the desired results safely and effectively.

You can create your own product with different skincare ingredients that maximize glycolic acid effects and add the right moisturizing according to your skin needs using Lesielle´s Adaptative Skincare System. Complete this skin quiz and adapt your product to you.

What ingredients are safe to combine with glycolic acid?

Combining glycolic acid with other skincare ingredients can enhance its benefits and address multiple skin concerns simultaneously. However, it’s crucial to choose compatible ingredients to avoid irritation and achieve the best results.

Ingredients to Combine

Here are some ingredients that are generally safe to use with glycolic acid:

  • Hyaluronic Acid: Known for its hydrating properties, hyaluronic acid is an excellent companion to glycolic acid. It helps to maintain skin moisture and counteract any dryness or irritation caused by glycolic acid.

  • Vitamin C: Using vitamin C with glycolic acid can enhance your skin’s brightness and even out skin tone. However, because both are potent actives, it’s best to use them at different times of the day (vitamin C in the morning and glycolic acid at night) to minimize the risk of irritation.

  • Niacinamide: This ingredient is beneficial for reducing redness and improving the skin barrier. Niacinamide can soothe the skin and enhance the effects of glycolic acid without irritating it. It can be used in the same routine as glycolic acid or at different times of the day.

  • Peptides: Peptides support collagen production and can work synergistically with glycolic acid to improve skin texture and firmness. They are gentle and can be included in the same routine.

  • Ceramides: These help restore the skin barrier and lock in moisture. Combining ceramides with glycolic acid can ensure your skin remains hydrated and protected.

  • SPF: Sunscreen is a must when using glycolic acid as it increases your skin’s sensitivity to the sun. Always apply a broad-spectrum sunscreen with at least SPF 30 during the day to protect your skin from UV damage.

Ingredients to Avoid

While many ingredients can be combined safely with glycolic acid, some should be avoided to prevent over-exfoliation and irritation:

  • Retinoids: Combining glycolic acid with retinoids can be too harsh for most skin types, leading to irritation and sensitivity. If you want to use both, consider alternating them on different nights.

  • Benzoyl Peroxide: This acne-fighting ingredient can be too drying when used with glycolic acid, leading to increased irritation.

  • Salicylic Acid: Another exfoliating acid, salicylic acid can compound the effects of glycolic acid, potentially leading to over-exfoliation and irritation. Use them on alternate days if needed.

By selecting the right ingredients to pair with glycolic acid, you can maximize its benefits while minimizing potential side effects.

Two women choosing different actives to combine with glycolic acid

In this article, you will find more information about what can you mix and what you should not use together with glycolic acid you can consult.

Some times it is hard to find some of the combinable ingredients together since they have different stability pH and they cannot be mixed for avoiding degradation. So you can use them one by one mixing them by yourself or you can use an Adaptative Cosmetic System as the one offered by Lesielle, where the actives are combined just when you are using them.

What Precautions Should Be Taken During Different Seasons?

Glycolic acid can be a powerful addition to your skincare routine, but its use requires careful consideration of seasonal changes. Different weather conditions can affect your skin's response to glycolic acid, making it essential to adjust your skincare practices accordingly. Here are some important precautions to take during summer and winter to ensure your skin remains healthy and protected.

  1. Increased Sun Sensitivity: Glycolic acid increases your skin’s sensitivity to the sun. During summer, when UV exposure is higher, it's crucial to apply a broad-spectrum sunscreen with at least SPF 30 every morning, even on cloudy days. Reapply every two hours if you are outdoors.

  2. Avoid Peak Sun Hours: Try to avoid sun exposure between 10 AM and 4 PM when UV rays are strongest. Wear protective clothing, hats, and sunglasses.

  3. Hydration: Summer heat can dehydrate your skin. Ensure you drink plenty of water and use hydrating products like serums or moisturizers containing hyaluronic acid.

  4. Frequency Adjustment: You may want to reduce the frequency of glycolic acid use during summer to minimize the risk of sunburn and irritation.

  1. Dry Skin Management: Winter air can be very drying. Use a rich, hydrating moisturizer to combat dryness and prevent your skin from becoming too sensitive or irritated by glycolic acid.

  2. Lower Concentrations: Consider using a lower concentration of glycolic acid during winter when your skin is more prone to dryness and sensitivity.

  3. Avoid Hot Water: Hot showers and baths can strip your skin of natural oils. Use lukewarm water instead and apply a moisturizer immediately after to lock in hydration.

  4. Humidifier Use: Indoor heating can dry out the air, leading to drier skin. Using a humidifier can help maintain moisture levels in your skin.

  5. Gentle Cleansing: Use a gentle, hydrating cleanser to avoid further stripping your skin of moisture. Avoid cleansers with alcohol or other harsh ingredients.

By adjusting your skincare routine and taking these precautions during different seasons, you can continue to benefit from glycolic acid while minimizing the risk of irritation and other adverse effects.

Glycolic acid is a versatile and powerful skincare ingredient that offers numerous benefits, from exfoliating dead skin cells to promoting collagen production and reducing hyperpigmentation. By incorporating it thoughtfully into your skincare routine and pairing it with complementary ingredients, you can achieve a healthier, more radiant complexion. Remember to start with lower concentrations, use sunscreen diligently, and tailor your regimen to your specific skin type for the best results

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Frequent asked questions about Glycolic Acid

Glycolic acid can cause a burning sensation because it is a potent exfoliant that penetrates deeply into the skin, breaking down dead skin cells. This can lead to temporary irritation, especially if you have sensitive skin or are using a high concentration.

Experiencing severe irritation or burning from glycolic acid can be alarming, but there are steps you can take to alleviate the symptoms and adjust your skincare routine:

  1. Immediately Stop Use: Discontinue using the glycolic acid product as soon as you notice severe irritation or burning.

  2. Rinse Thoroughly: Gently wash your face with cool water and a mild, fragrance-free cleanser to remove any remaining glycolic acid from your skin.

  3. Apply a Soothing Product: Use a calming product like aloe vera gel or a moisturizer containing ingredients such as ceramides, hyaluronic acid, or colloidal oatmeal to soothe irritated skin.

  4. Avoid Other Actives: For a few days, avoid using other active skincare ingredients like retinoids, vitamin C, or other exfoliants that can further irritate your skin.

  5. Use a Barrier Cream: Apply a barrier cream or ointment, such as petroleum jelly, to protect your skin and aid in its recovery.

  6. Consult a Dermatologist: If irritation persists or worsens, consult a dermatologist for personalized advice and treatment options.

  7. Adjust Usage: Once your skin has healed, consider using a lower concentration of glycolic acid or reducing the frequency of use. Perform a patch test before reintroducing it to your routine.

Using glycolic acid every day is generally not recommended, especially for beginners or those with sensitive skin. Start with once or twice a week and gradually increase frequency as your skin builds tolerance. Overuse can lead to irritation and dryness.

Glycolic acid can help prevent acne by keeping pores clear and reducing breakouts. However, initial use may cause purging, where underlying impurities come to the surface, which can resemble acne.

As it was said in Benefits section, glycolic acid can help fade dark spots and hyperpigmentation by promoting the shedding of pigmented skin cells and encouraging the growth of new, evenly pigmented skin.

Combining glycolic acid with retinol can be too harsh for most skin types, leading to irritation. It’s best to use them on alternate nights or at different times of the day. You have more information on Ingredients to Avoid section

Yes, niacinamide can be used with glycolic acid. It helps to soothe the skin and improve the skin barrier, reducing the risk of irritation. They can be used in the same routine or at different times of the day.

Glycolic acid does not lighten skin but can help even out skin tone and reduce hyperpigmentation, giving the appearance of a brighter complexion.

Glycolic acid can benefit dry skin by removing dead skin cells and promoting hydration. However, it should be used in moderation and followed by a good moisturizer. More information on Skin Types section.

No, glycolic acid and hyaluronic acid are different. Glycolic acid is an exfoliant, while hyaluronic acid is a hydrating molecule that helps retain moisture in the skin. They can be used together for complementary benefits.

Glycolic acid can potentially fade microblading over time due to its exfoliating properties. It’s best to avoid applying glycolic acid directly to microbladed areas to preserve the pigment.

Studies:

  • Glycolic Acid Modulation of Collagen Production in Human Skin Fibroblast Cultures In Vitro: Glycolic acid has been shown to significantly increase collagen production in human skin fibroblasts. This stimulation of collagen production helps improve skin firmness and reduce wrinkles (Moy et al., 1996).

  • Glycolic Acid Peels for the Treatment of Wrinkles and Photoaging: Glycolic acid peels are effective in reducing fine wrinkles, actinic keratoses, lentigines, melasma, and seborrheic keratoses. Regular use can rejuvenate the skin and improve its texture (Moy et al., 1993).

  • Inhibitory Effect of Glycolic Acid on UVB-Induced Skin Damage: Glycolic acid inhibits UVB-induced cytotoxicity and apoptosis in skin cells, reducing the expression of pro-apoptotic genes and protecting against skin damage from UV radiation (Ahn et al., 2002).

  • Topical Application of Glycolic Acid and Reduction of UVB-Induced Inflammation: Glycolic acid reduces UVB-induced inflammation by modulating the NF-κB signaling pathway, which decreases the production of inflammatory mediators like IL-6, IL-8, and COX-2 in keratinocytes and mouse skin (Tang et al., 2017).

  • Clinical and Histological Effects of Glycolic Acid: Studies have shown that glycolic acid can normalize ichthyotic and xerotic skin, improve skin moisture, and increase collagen content. Different pH levels and concentrations of glycolic acid have been effective in improving skin conditions (Grove & Moy, 1996).

  • Clinical Evaluation of Glycolic Acid Chemical Peeling in Patients with Acne Vulgaris: This study found that while glycolic acid peels significantly improved moderate acne in Asian skin, there were some side effects. The most common side effects included burning, pain, itching, erythema, and edema. These side effects were generally mild and manageable (Kaminaka et al., 2014).

  • The Efficacy and Safety of a Novel Protective Complex Combined With 50% Glycolic Acid Peel: This double-blind, split-face study highlighted that higher concentrations of glycolic acid, such as 50%, can lead to significant adverse effects including burning, pain, itching, erythema, and edema. However, the study also demonstrated that adding a novel protective complex can significantly reduce these adverse effects and shorten recovery time (Artzi et al., 2021).

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